Squat, stand, walk, run: New research suggests we should do anything but sit

The 9-5 office desk grind.
The 9-5 office desk grind.
Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar
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The UK might have avoided an estimated 69,276 deaths in 2016 if people somehow stopped being sedentary for long periods. That’s according to an eye-popping study (pdf) published this week by a group of researchers, largely based at Queens University Belfast, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

“More realistically, if levels of sedentary behavior were 10%, 30%, or 50% lower in 2016, we might have avoided 6,928, 17,319, or 34,638 deaths, respectively,” the study authors wrote.

Sedentary behavior differs from physical inactivity in that it is specific to sitting or lying down. About one-third of UK adults are sedentary for at least six waking hours a day, according to 2012 NHS health survey numbers cited by the researchers. Those figures climb even higher on the weekends. Regular and prolonged spells of sitting or lying down are associated with a number of negative health outcomes.

The researchers arrived at their estimates by pooling data from multiple cohort studies to calculate the proportion of cases of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and a handful of other ailments attributable to sedentary behavior in the UK. They then multiplied those percentages against public health-care spending on those diseases to estimate the financial cost of sedentariness.

“When I started to get into this area, I noticed there was lots of estimations of the economic cost of different risk factors,” says Leonie Heron, a researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, and one of the study’s authors. “But no estimation of the effect on the economy in relation to sedentary behavior specifically.”

In total, the study estimated that between 2016 and 2017, sedentariness added £424 million ($557 million) to UK health-care expenditures for treating cardiovascular diseases and £281 million ($369 million) for diabetes, along with smaller amounts for other ailments. The estimates are conservative, the authors write.

The issue of extended sitting is a growing concern for countries with large populations of office workers. A 2016 article in The Lancet medical journal concluded that the risks posed by sitting for upwards of eight hours a day were comparable to that of obesity or smoking.

The Lancet article also concluded that between one hour and one hour and 15 minutes of moderate exercise a day offsets the health consequences of extended sitting. About one-third of British men and 42% of women are not physically active enough to maintain good health, according to the UK government.

“Obviously many people have sedentary jobs and that’s part of their life and part of modern culture,” Heron says. But, she adds, people should “definitely try to break up those long periods of sitting.”

There are simple ways to do that—like taking a break every half an hour or so, or standing while working, although the benefits of either are likely smaller than exercise.

You could also try squatting, which outside many rich countries is the norm for a range of activities including resting, sharing a meal, and going to the bathroom. It aids our musculoskeletal system and has wider benefits on heart health and other indicators.

This story was updated with revised estimates of the human toll of sedentariness made by the authors after the study’s publication.